Is There an Autism Epidemic? Not Exactly, But…

When our now 14-year-old son Charlie was diagnosed with autism in 1999, we were told that autism was a rare disorder, occurring in 1 out of 10,000 children — and then, within just a few years, there was talk everywhere of an “epidemic of autism.” Since then, we have  found ourselves on a long journey to figure out how best to teach Charlie, help him, ready him for adulthood and for the time when we will not be here to support him. It has seemed both a comfort to know that there are many others like him out there, but also puzzling. We have followed the numerous research studies about autism’s causes, the prevalence rate and possible explanations for an “epidemic.” This latter topic is revised by the Los Angeles Times has begun a four-part series, Unraveling an Epidemic, that started this Sunday, December 11.

Rising Prevalence Rate For Autism in the Past Decade

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an average of 1 in 110 children are autistic. In New Jersey where we live the prevalence rate is an even higher, 1 in 94 children. The CDC notes that, in the US, the rate can be as high as 1 in 80 and as low as 1 in 240.

Theories have mushroomed about the rise in autism diagnoses and tended to fall into two categories: Some argue that some external, environmental factor — vaccines or something in vaccines, pollution, pesticides — must be the cause for such a dramatic increase in the number of diagnoses. Others make a case for what come to be known as the “better diagnosis” explanation, that our greater understanding about autism and ability to identify and diagnose it in younger and younger children is behind the rising prevalence rate. A 2005 study found that the autism prevalence rate rose at the same time as diagnoses for learning disabilities and mental retardation fell, suggesting that some of those who are receiving an autism diagnosis today would have received a different one in the past.

Just a few months ago, researchers from Yale University and George Washington University found a prevalence rate of 1 in 38 percent children in South Korea. These findings could be used to support both theories as the study found the highest prevalent rate ever, a seeming sign of an “epidemic” — or was that 1 in 38 rate found because of superior and sensitive diagnostic instruments and the expert observations of those undertaking the study, because of better knowledge and understanding?

Research Undermines Studies Into Environmental Causes

The UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has undertaken extensive study of possible environmental causes of autism. But every possible “lead” has been undermined by sociological factors:

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist at UC Davis, suspects that environmental triggers such as exposure to chemicals during pregnancy play a role. In a 2009 study, she started with a tantalizing lead — several autism clusters, mostly in Southern California, that her team had identified from disability and birth records.

But the hot spots could not be linked to chemical plants, waste dumps or any other obvious environmental hazards. Instead, the cases were concentrated in places where parents were highly educated and had easy access to treatment.

Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia University, has demonstrated how such social forces are driving autism rates.

Analyzing state data, he identified a 386-square-mile area centered in West Hollywood that consistently produced three times as many autism cases as would be expected from birth rates.

Affluence helped set the area apart. But delving deeper, Bearman detected a more surprising pattern that existed across the state: Rich or poor, children living near somebody with autism were more likely to have the diagnosis themselves.

Living within 250 meters boosted the chances by 42%, compared to living between 500 and 1,000 meters away.

Bearman sums up the reason for the increase in the autism rate as “people talk” and that, while autism is definitely not contagious, the diagnosis is.

More Than 55,000 Autism Cases in California

Autism diagnoses have skyrocketed in the past decade in California:

The California Department of Developmental Services, which focuses on the more debilitating cases, set off a national alarm in 1999 when it reported 12,000 cases, a rise of more than 200% in a decade.

The number has since increased more than fourfold and now exceeds 55,000. Because most patients remain in the system for life, the count is likely to continue to rise for decades.

California’s public schools serve students from across the spectrum, including many with milder symptoms. Since schools started tracking autism in 1991, the caseload has climbed precipitously — to nearly 14,000 by 2000 and nearly 70,000 by 2010.

Moreover, some parents interviewed by the Los Angeles Times have sought to have a child receive a “more severe” autism diagnosis, as it means that a child will receive a greater number of services. Not only have parents sought an autism diagnosis; some practitioners have been glad to give a child one:

Dr. Nancy Niparko, a child neurologist in Beverly Hills, said that whether she identifies a child as autistic can come down to whether she believes it will do any good.

“If it’s going to improve the possibility of getting services that will be helpful, I will give the label,” she said.

“I don’t work for labels. Labels work for me.”


More Autism Cases Can Be a Positive Sign

Neither my husband Jim nor I had known much about autism prior to hearing the word used in reference to our tall-for-his-age, late-walking, not-talking toddler, more than a decade ago. But once we knew the signs of autism — profound difficulty with grasping and executing social interactions and with communication; a tendency to repetitive, ritualistic behaviors and extreme responses of a screaming-in-near-death-terror when we tried to get Charlie to stop these — we could readily  detect autism in other children. We also started to routinely hear about this or that friend or relative or neighbor or colleague having “a child with that too” or knowing someone with such a child. The steadfastly eccentric friend, the co-worker who always seemed to be looking through you: Might they also not be on the autism spectrum, perhaps having Asperger’s Syndrome? Suddenly, we seemed to be finding autistic people everywhere though many had abilities in speech and academics far exceeding Charlie’s.

Some decry the increase in autism diagnoses as evidence that it is the trendy “disease du jour” and that parents are simply seeking it to gain more services. But it can also be argued that it is a huge plus that more individuals are being diagnosed. More cases of autism is a sign that, thanks to greater awareness, understanding and even acceptance about disability, more people are receiving services and education that can help (one hopes) enable them to have better, fuller lives.

Related Care2 Coverage

Autism is “Fashionable”?

26 out of 1000 People Are Autistic: Chemicals? Better Diagnosis?

Is There an Autism Epidemic?: New UK Study of Adults Says No

Did the DSM Create an Epidemic of Asperger’s?




Photo of Charlie by the author


John C.
John C.5 years ago

here is best knowledge on the Causes of Autism

Sondra O.
Sondra O.5 years ago

Of course Autism is caused by environmental factors! Actually, environmental factors created by humans! Naysayers will not appreciate this logic, but how can you argue that in the beginning of time, many of today;s diseases were never seen, not just not heard of. They did not exist. As more pollutants, pesticides, artificial anything became common, new "bugs" sprouted! If we were to completely eliminate these factors, we would start to see a fast decline of human medical conditions..

Robert Ludwig
Robert Ludwig6 years ago

I don't know why the rate of Autism is so high. I used to subscribe to the vaccine theory and may still do. What I do know is there are people who are genuinely disabled to the point where it is doubtful they will ever be able to function in adulthood without some form of support.

At the numbers and rates currently being described, I should think this would qualify as a pandemic. Perhaps the question for research is, "are we dealing with one disease or several?" Different diseases can still express themselves with similar symptoms. And Autism is a name for a collection of symptoms, not the specific cause.

I would be interested in reading about the current state of research into the causes of Autism spectrum.

Alan N.
Alison Stevenson6 years ago

I am on the autistic spectrum myself, as are some of my closest friends. And no, there's no autism epidemic any more than there's a tallness epidemic for example (humanity certainly seems to have grown on average compared to 50 years ago) - "epidemic" implies an illness, whereas the bulk of the problems autism causes both for individuals and for those around them is actually a result of society and/or most people not knowing how to accommodate autistic people, or even of outright prejudice; the remainder, on average, are easily balanced by the advantages to the individual, to those around them and to society at large.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G6 years ago

Correlation between waste treatment and birth defects!

Elizabeth S.
Elizabeth S6 years ago


Jane Barton
Jane Barton6 years ago

cont. force them to.

Jane Barton
Jane Barton6 years ago

Laurie Greenberg Laurie G.
9:06PM PST on Dec 15, 2011

Yes, I am suspicious of environmental pollution as a trigger for several conditions and cancers. I'm not certain about autism. Many people who live around hydrofracking wells and their toxic wastes have developed hair loss, cancer, their animals were born deformed, other animals died. There is so much pollution in so many places that it's nigh on impossible to pinpoint exactly what causes what.

You just said animals were born deformed who lived around hydrofracking wells and toxic waste. Humans are animals. Why wouldn't toxic waste affect humans the same way???
The fact is it DOES. Toxic chemicals get inside the human body and stay in there. When humans reproduce, the chemicals interfere with cell division when the baby is growing in the womb. Physical deformities and mental deformities are ALL caused by pollution. The proof is there are pockets of autism close to high pollution areas. It's not happening in just one place, it's happening all over America. High pollution=Autism After the bombs were dropped on Japan and killed millions of people, did anybody question if there might have been
some other "cause"? Japanese who lived through it got cancer. Were they ever told, this was probably "caused" by not praying enough or it just runs in your family? Big Biz is polluting more than ever, they will not stop because they want to stuff their pockets full of MONEY. They run our government so nobody can fo

Josh W.
Josh W.6 years ago

my conclusion is that environmental factors create problems with the mother's ability to give birth to a healthy child, thus creating unhealthy children.

Josh W.
Josh W.6 years ago

I know a woman that has an extremely autistic child that in my opinion is mostly mentally retarded. This kid cannot speak and has horrible habits and angry outbursts.. The woman also has another child who is very hyper-active and is very difficult to control, and the child actually thrives on annoying everybody he encounters and is mean to animals. The woman also recently had a miscarriage. So my conclusion is that one factor creating autism is a genetic malfunction. However I do also believe that this is largely due to environmental factors on a nano chemical level, affecting dna and neurons. We can't forget that this country use to do open nuclear testing in the desert. Also, there are many pharmaceuticals that are in our water supply, and they are not being filtered out. Not to mention the huge amount of toxins being dispersed into the air from factories and refineries. Our water is being contaminated also by companies that are not being properly regulated by the government, especially in the mining and petroleum industry.